One morning, as I was reading articles on my computer, I saw our 11-year-old in my peripheral vision sitting on the floor and staring blankly into space. As my attention switched to her, she noticed it and immediately said, “I’m not bored, okay? I’m just thinking,” and so I told her to carry on.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is to allow yourself to daydream. There’s a reason why most ideas are hatched in the shower or (admittedly) while sitting on the toilet seat. Leave room for doing absolutely nothing and watch ideas come to you instead of forcing them to do so.
“As Neil Gaiman taught me, the best way to defeat writer’s block is to get really bored,” the marketing guru Seth Godin recalls.
I can attest to these as most ideas come to me the moment I step away from the computer; further reinforcing the idea that allowing one’s self to daydream—thinking of absolutely nothing—fuels creativity. My daily dilemma has become choosing whether to listen to podcasts or read during my free time or allow my brain idle time to process input from previous days.
The musician, bestselling writer, and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin emphasizes that insights are far more likely to come when you are in the mind-wandering mode than in the task-focused mode.
In psychology, mind-wandering mode happens within the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on the outside world. As a person idles and her mind drifts, the activity of the DMN may help give rise to ideas that other networks then vet and process further1. But here’s the thing about the DMN: it cannot activate when you’re focused on a task. DMN is deactivated during cognitive task performance.
You need moments where you’re doing absolutely nothing to give your brain time to process all the input it has received. Otherwise, it’ll be like speed reading where you finish a book at record pace but can’t recall what it was about after a week or two.
In a Time article from 2006, The Hidden Secrets of the Creative Mind, Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer says, “When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain. If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another.”
One of the problems in a management style—which can be both in a business or a family setting—that demands tangible productivity is that it stifles creativity. Creative pursuits are best done in moments of silence and pause and you clearly cannot force creative insights off of someone with unnecessary prodding. On top of that, action doesn’t always result in productivity which goes in parallel with the worn out saying, “work smart, not hard.”
As parents, we can, at times, be the worst micromanagers by nagging and calling our kids’ attention every time they zone out (or seem to do so) or when we ask them to do something which clearly can wait but we do so anyway solely because it was convenient for us. These interruptions are costly—more so if the person is in the middle of a task and in a state of flow.
In his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. Every business owner prizes productivity so you’d think it would make sense that they’d want their employees to experience flow at work as much as possible. But the truth is, managers can be an impediment to flow by having ever-changing goals, checking in impulsively, and having meetings one after the other—not allowing the person time to process input received previously.
When a person is in a flow state, they need to focus their attention to the task at hand and any lapse in concentration which can come in any form of interruption will cause the person to disengage from such state losing all momentum gained earlier.
At home, we can encourage this behavior by allowing our kids to zone out every now and then—especially after reading a book or a session of homeschooling. At work, we can schedule 30- or 60-minute pockets of uninterrupted time to give ourselves time to process all the input and perhaps come up with creative solutions. I would even suggest to actually create this as a public event in your calendar to (1) make it a habit and hold yourself accountable, and (2) to discourage people from inviting you into a meeting during this time.
So, what are you waiting for? Don’t waste your time reading unintelligible blog posts like this. Allow yourself, and in this case, others, to daydream and see which creative ideas you’ll come up with.
It’s okay to be bored. It’s okay to think. And like what I’ve told our 11-year-old earlier: go and carry on.